An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Isabel R. '20

The language of dance is one of the best ways in which one can build cultural bridges. This thought occurred to me as I watched the young members of the community demonstrate the choreography they created for our Heiva performance. And yes, they did have to use some French to corral us into lines or encourage us to smile, but mostly dance requires no speaking (if you don’t count singing along to the slow ‘aparima songs). It manages to transcend language which is often a barrier between cross-cultural understanding and connection. 

Dance is its own language. The movements tell stories, embodying the words and feelings of the accompanying songs. Just like how different countries have their own languages, different cultures also have their own dance styles. For French Polynesia, dance is an essential part of the culture. Everyone seems to know how to dance beautifully from an early age. Almost all of their community gatherings feature some aspect of dance, from the dancing nights called Kikiriris to the famed dance competition at the annual Heiva festival to the elementary school’s end-of-year dance performance. 

In this way, learning Polynesian dance (ori Tahiti) was a form of service. The many dance classes we attended gave the locals a chance to share their culture with appreciative recipients, something they don’t get to do often because it is an isolated, remote island with virtually no tourism. The few tourists who do make the trek stay in resorts where they overlook the authentic traditions and interactions with locals. Because French Polynesia is a French territory, it is a difficult feat to preserve their heritage and keep it from being overwhelmed by foreign ideas and culture. All of these factors work together to mean Polynesian’s culture is often overlooked. By observing and learning their dance style, it gave us something to bring home to Seattle – a way to spread awareness about Polynesia. 

At our last rehearsal before the long-awaited performance, the mayor spoke of how our dance classes managed to strengthen our homestay community. She shared that for many of our Polynesian dance partners, it was their first time dancing in the village. Before our arrival, they had not attended town events, let alone performed at the festival. She also shared that the front row dancers, the ones who choreographed the beautiful pieces and taught them to us, were previously not involved in community events.

With the teamwork and closeness needed for thirty people to dance as one, the classes bonded us. We learned to trust and encourage one another through the many mistakes and misunderstandings. These rehearsals gave us a chance to connect and laugh. I learned the valuable lesson that meaningful communication doesn’t always require language. It is more about being welcoming and friendly, as the citizens were to us. It didn’t matter that I didn’t always understand their cultural subtleties, it was more about using empathy and remembering to disregard my biases or assumptions.

Dance brings people together. It brought the locals and us Americans together, and it brought the village together.

Isabel is also a photography student at Lakeside, and took the accompanying photos.